Contact Zones: Why Bother With Arts Archives?

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11 December 2023 | 7:30 - 9:30pm
Five Arts Centre (9th Floor, GMBB, Unit GM-9-15, 2, Jalan Robertson, Bukit Bintang, 50150 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia)
Register here!

Arts archives do more than simply document what has passed. They also remind us how society has changed, and how our art worlds have evolved into what they are today. An arts archive can tell us more if we allow it to, and if we work to create archives in ways that are purpose-led and relevant. 

Yet arts archives are facing pressing challenges, including access, visibility, long-term storage and costs. There are also questions about ownership, agency, temporalities and representation. In light of these challenges and questions, are arts archives still worth the effort?  

Join us to hear more about the various endeavours to develop and sustain arts archives in Malaysia and Singapore, as we critically consider the relevance and future of arts archives, especially in the context of Southeast Asia. 

This panel discussion is co-organised by Five Arts Centre, Arts and Culture Management Programme at Singapore Management University (SMU-ACM) and Centre 42. As a prompt to consider the possible futures of archives, on display will be posters documenting cross-border collaborations between Singapore and Malaysia created by the SMU-ACM students.


Read more about the panelists below! 

Five headshots of panelists for 'Contact Zones', set against a pale background with a torn paper texture.
Janet Pillai
Speaker, Arts Education Archive Malaysia

Janet Pillai served as an associate professor at the Department of Performing Arts in University Sains Malaysia until 2013 and founded Arts-ED (2007), a non-profit organisation in Penang which provides place-based culture education for young people. Pillai’s interests lie in the field of arts and culture education as well as research and publication. Pillai worked for most of her career as a theatre director with young people before moving into the more focused topic of community-based arts and cultural sustainability.

Kathy Rowland
Speaker, MY Art Memory Project

Kathy Rowland is the co-founder of ArtsEquator, a charity dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, running arts and culture programs and arts media platforms, with a special interest in artistic freedom of expression. In 2022, she founded the Southeast Asian Arts Censorship Database which documents violations against artistic freedom in Southeast Asia.

Ma Yanling
Speaker, C42 Archive of SG Theatre

Ma Yanling is a performer and arts manager based in Singapore. She is the General Manager at Centre 42, a non-profit theatre development space. Since its establishment in 2014, Yanling has steered and produced many of its artist residencies and platforms for new writing and dramaturgy development. She continues to lead the administration and advocacy of Centre 42’s digital theatre archive as a core of the organisation’s work.

Fasyali Fadzly

Fasyali Fadzly is a director, playwright, researcher and educator. He had written and directed his own plays such as Teater Juta-Juta, Berani Mati, Kotak Hitam, Mati Hidup Kembali, Ingatan and directed several plays from other playwrights such as Faisal Tehrani, Leow Puay Tin, Yasmina Reza, Alfian Sa’at and many more. His theatrical works have been staged in Malaysia and abroad such as Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, Canada and Czech Republic. He also writes theatre-related articles and reviews and was published in local and international web portals such as Critics Republic (Malaysia), Arts Equator (Singapore), Dewan Budaya (Malaysia) and Jurnal Svara (Malaysia). In 2020, he self-published his first collection of plays titled Teater Juta-Juta: Koleksi Skrip Teater Fasyali Fadzly. Currently, he works for Malaysian theatre archive project, My Art Memory Project as a researcher. Fasyali is now serving at The National Academy of Arts, Culture and Heritage of Malaysia (ASWARA).

Fasyali Fadzly merupakan seorang pengarah, dramatis, penyelidik dan pendidik. Beliau telah menulis dan mengarahkan teaternya sendiri seperti Teater Juta-Juta, Berani Mati, Kotak Hitam, Mati Hidup Kembali, Ingatan dan turut mengarah karya- karya lain dari penulis lain seperti Faisal Tehrani, Leow Puay Tin, Yasmina Reza, Alfian Sa’at dan banyak lagi. Penglibatan teaternya pernah dipentaskan di Malaysia dan luar negara seperti Jepun, Indonesia, Singapura, Canada dan Republik Czech. Beliau turut menulis artikel berkaitan teater dan diterbitkan di portal tempatan dan antarabangsa seperti Critics Republic (Malaysia), Arts Equator (Singapura), Dewan Budaya (Malaysia) dan Jurnal Svara (Malaysia). Pada tahun 2020, beliau telah menerbitkan sendiri koleksi skripnya yang bertajuk Teater Juta-Juta: Koleksi Skrip Teater Fasyali Fadzly. Beliau turut mengusahakan projek arkib teater Malaysia, My Art memory Project sebagai penyelidik. Fasyali kini berkhidmat sebagai dekan di Fakulti Teater, Akademi Seni Budaya dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA).

Hoe Su Fern
  • Hoe Su Fern is an arts researcher, educator and advocate. She is currently Assistant Professor and Coordinator of the Arts and Culture Management Programme at the Singapore Management University. She has spoken, researched and published on arts and cultural policy, urban cultural economies, placemaking and the conditions of artistic and cultural production. She has a wealth of experience in developing, managing and/or coordinating local, regional and global projects in varying formats; all of which advocate for the value of the arts and culture in urban life. Her practice is informed by her pursuit for practice-oriented and engaged arts research, and her interest in enhancing research impact beyond academia. (Source: C42 Archive)


Arts Education Archive Malaysia hosts articles about arts-education programs and projects conducted outside of formal education by specific individuals and organisations in Malaysia.

MY Art Memory Project is an initiative by Five Arts Centre Malaysia. The Pilot Project was funded by a grant from Sime Darby Foundation, Halfmoon Bay Capital Limited, Think City, Jabatan Kebudayaan dan Keseniaan Negara and Five Arts Centre.

The C42 Archive of Singapore Theatre features artefacts, texts and information contributed by over 30 theatre companies, collectives and individuals. Learn more about the people, productions and processes that make up Singapore's theatre history.


Five Arts Centre

Five Arts Centre is a dynamic collective of Malaysian artists, activists, and producers, dedicated to generating alternative art forms and images in the contemporary arts landscape.

It is well-known for cutting edge performances in theatre, dance, music, and young people’s theatre, and incorporates aspects of the visual and digital arts as well. The collective has performed and presented its work across Southeast Asia, as well as in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, India, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Greece, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Belgium, Finland, United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia.

Arts and Culture Management Programme at Singapore Management University

The Arts and Culture Management Programme at Singapore Management University (SMU-ACM) is an undergraduate programme helmed by Professor Hoe Su Fern, which provides an interdisciplinary blend of conceptual and skills-based learning to equip students with the foundational knowledge, managerial aptitude and strategic reflexivity for entry into the arts and creative industries. The hallmark strengths of ACM are the close linkages to the arts and cultural policy communities in Southeast Asia, and focus on experiential industry projects intended to sharpen the professional competencies and cultural leadership potential of students.

Centre 42

Centre 42 is a non-profit arts organisation with IPC status committed to the creation, documentation and promotion of text-based works for the Singapore stage.

As a theatre development space and intermediary, we incubate original writings for the stage, support the development of artists and new works, and develop and maintain a functional archive documenting the histories and processes of Singapore theatre.


Five Arts Centre (FAC), Arts and Culture Management Programme at Singapore Management University (SMU-ACM) and Centre 42 (C42) welcomed over 30 attendees to Contact Zones: Why Bother with Arts Archives? on 11 December. Before the roundtable discussion began, attendees had the opportunity to view posters documenting cross-border collaborations between Singapore and Malaysia, including Atomic Jaya (2003), Second Link (2005), Nadirah (2009) and Food, Sex and Death (2011). The SMU-ACM students who had created these posters also shared their ideas about situating the various collaborations within an archival entry.

A large group of people mingling in a corridor lined with posters.

The roundtable discussion began with a presentation by three of the SMU-ACM students who went into detail about Atomic Jaya (2003). They discussed the various factors that made this production an interesting and valuable case study of a theatre collaboration between Singapore and Malaysia, and took the audience through a microsite they had created. This microsite was their proposed format for a comprehensive and useful archival entry that provides information not only about the play, but about the creation process, the way it was received, and the social and historical contexts in which each staging existed. 

Three persons standing beside a projector screen, sharing about the slides being projected.

The first speaker was Kathy Rowland, the lead researcher of MY Art Memory Project (MAMP), who shared about her personal motivations that drove her to begin the archive, and the institutional support MAMP received from Five Arts Centre.

Four persons seated around a projector screen displaying a webpage. One is speaking into a microphone.

Ma Yanling, General Manager of Centre 42, shared about the journey of C42's Archive, beginning from its predecessor, the Repository. Centre 42's archival work began with collaterals and other theatrical ephemera that the team had to learn how to organise, catalogue, and digitise, and over the years, has led to the launch of the Archive in 2022, and its continuous growth and evolution in the present.

Four persons sat around a projector screen, one of them speaking into a microphone and gesturing to the screen.

Third panelist Janet Pillai shared about the Arts Education Archive Malaysia (AEAM), which documents case studies of non-formal arts education conducted in Malaysia. This archive features a meta-timeline that allows users to view the case studies in the context of the wider theatrical, social, and political context of the time period. Janet's interest was in archiving and safekeeping an aspect of Malaysian theatre history that would not get official representation in national archives.

Two persons seated in front of a projector screen, one speaking into a microphone.

Led by moderator Fasyali Fadzly, the roundtable saw Kathy, Yanling and Janet in dialogue about the motivations and purposes behind each of their archives, the themes and narratives present in the material contained on their archives, and the challenges of maintaining, sustaining and activating an archive. Key discussion points included:

  • The neutrality of an archive, and the challenges of maintaining that neutrality. Kathy noted that national and institutional archives often have a particular political agenda that can limit the kind of material that is included; being an independent archive allows MAMP to be as neutral as possible. Both MAMP and the C42 Archive focus on including as much material as possible and allowing users to make meaning out of what they view. 
  • Interpreting archival material within the artistic, cultural and socio-political context of its time, as well as in the present. Janet stressed the importance of talking to the practitioners involved in the works being archived in order to understand the intangible processes and unofficial information that contextualise a production, and critically examining the way material from the past is presented on an archive meant for present and future audiences. 
  • The importance of care and expertise in the maintenance of the archive, and the ever-present concern of sustainability in a world and an artistic ecosystem that is rapidly and continuously changing. Yanling noted that these changes include shifts in practice, vocabularies and systems, making it challenging to maintain consistency in the way material is documented and presented over time. Janet and Kathy agreed that another major challenge, especially for independent, ground-up archives, is the lack of personnel with formal training and expertise in archival - learning on the go and learning through doing can result in mistakes along the way that affect the running and activation of the archive. 
Four persons seated around a projector screen. On the projector is a slide that says 'Contact Zones: Why Bother With Arts Archives?'

The panelists took questions from the audience, which included curiosities regarding fact-checking, the challenges each archive faces when it comes to censorship, and the difficulties of identifying and classifying different forms of art. 

A person in a mask standing behind a large audience, speaking into a microphone.

Following the Q&A session, the discussion wrapped with a conclusion from respondent Hoe Su Fern, who noted the value of archives in a region where research and information can be scarce or difficult to access. There is a need for different kinds of archives to expand the pool of reliable and trustworthy knowledge for future generations. The work to build and maintain these archives is precarious, and rife with challenges, but nevertheless important. As we continue to do that work, Su Fern stressed the need to be conscious of the narratives these archives tell, and continuously aware of what they say, what they reproduce, and what they leave out.

Four persons seated around a projector screen. The rightmost person is holding a microphone and speaking into it.

Contact Zones: Why Bother With Arts Archives has concluded, but Five Arts Centre, SMU-ACM and Centre 42 hope that the conversations on arts archives have not, and that the roundtable discussion sparked more thoughts and reflections on the act of archiving in the region! 

Eight persons, three seated and five standing behind them, smiling for a group photo.


Hoe Su Fern
Ma Yanling